Feeling a bit of the mid-winter blah’s, my husband and I took the train to Chicago this past weekend for a big city adventure. If you haven’t done it, you should. For only seven bucks (weekend rate, roundtrip from Harvard, IL), you get to bypass the Illinois drivers, the tolls, the parking and the other general headaches associated with a visit the Windy City. If you have a kid who is a fan of Thomas the Tank Engine, you really should make the trip. The Metra is a two-story train and kids under 11 ride free! What’s not to like?
Our plan was no plan. So, armed with only a restaurant suggestion from a trusted source, and no set itinerary, we drove to Harvard and boarded the train on Saturday morning. 2 hours and about 20 stops later, we were in the Loop. It was a fairly nice day for a February in Chicago, and we took advantage and walked miles and miles, did some window shopping on the Magnificent Mile and gaped at the architecture. Lunch was at the Elephant and Castle pub on State. Our dinner recommendation was for an Italian place on Monroe Street. It turned out to be just across the street and two doors down from our hotel, so it couldn’t have been better situated. I was told it was a fantastic place, full of atmosphere and romance. Just the ticket for our early Valentine’s Day celebration.
Italian Village is one of those old fashioned Italian American places--the kind where you know you will get a good chianti and a decent meatball, if desired. In such a place, I generally go for linguine in a white clam sauce because I don’t get the chance to cook with fresh clams very often, and so will order them out when I can. And you know the bread is always fresh and plentiful.
As the Village doesn’t make reservations for two on a Saturday night, we had to try our luck and just show up. So, advised to go early in order to score one of their intimate banquettes (almost like private little rooms), we arrived at an unfashionable 6:15. They were able to seat us immediately, but alas, we didn’t get the hoped for booth--just a two-cap table pushed against the wall. Alongside us, (and I should have known better and asked for another table), were several tables pushed together and set for 26. I know because I counted the chairs as we walked past.
Our waiter had just began to take our order when the big exuberant group of college-aged kids arrived. I swear 90% of them had cell phones in their sweaty grasps or up to their ears. The noise went from a quiet Olive Gardenish level to a full on Texas Roadhouse Saturday night--with the line dancing wait staff. I had to shout my wine order.
However, we decided that the noise was just part of the ambience, and thus made a conscious decision to not let it bother us. When our wine arrived, I was a bit disgruntled to see my $9 glass of Montepulciano (a spluge for my usual cheapskate sensibilities) served in an inexpensive, six oz white wine glass. For the record, I’m not a wine snob, but I do think a good red deserves a balloon shaped glass. My husband’s pinot grigio was in the same cheapo glass. They made an almost plastic clicking sound when we toasted each other.
Our bread and side salads soon arrived. The bread was meh…the kind of stuff you get in the freezer section and warm up in the oven. My salad was positively swimming in French dressing-probably a half cup for a handful of lettuce. A large measure of it spilled over the edge of the plate when the waiter set it down, dripping red onto my hand and the white table cloth. He walked away without a word.
And then the food arrived. Here’s an accurate description of my dish of pasta: Cook linguine, a bit past al dente. Open a can of clams and drain. Toss with the pasta to warm them up a bit. Serve. That’s it--there wasn’t an herb to be seen or a morsel of garlic to taste, just bland, unsalted pasta with the tangy metallic taste of canned seafood. The dish of parmesan cheese on the table looked like the powdered stuff from the can. Blech. Fortunately, my husband’s pasta with grilled shrimp was a bit more appetizing and he generously shared with me.
Did we complain? No. Should we have? Probably. But, despite the restaurant’s failure to meet my expectations of a fabulous romantic setting and a sublime meal, we still enjoyed each other’s company and were able to spend some quality time together on our mini vacation. We are going to try again next year. But maybe Chinese.
Have you ever had a situation where you get a great buildup to a restaurant and it is a flop? Have you taken the train to Chicago? Share away.
Lisa Parsley is a Janesville native writes about food and cooking for Gazettextra.com. Lisa is a community blogger and is not a part of The Gazette staff. Her opinion is not necessarily that of the The Gazette staff or management.